The Novel Chatter

February 3, 2006 | It's All About Writing

Editors like dialogue. It provides ‘white space’. Readers like dialogue. It moves the story along at a faster pace. You, the author, need to master writing dialogue. Let’s try and make it easy for you with two important factors.


He said, she said, they all said are what is known as tag lines.

Many writers wax poetic with; he replied angrily, she screamed out the words, they hissed their answer as one. After you yank your finger out of your throat consider why the three examples are bad.

He replied angrily.
Replied is good but angrily is over kill. Your dialogue should show the character’s anger. Add an action to emphasis instead of an adverb.

Once in awhile it may be necessary to add an adverb. Hester Kaplan wrote in a prize short story:

“Cold as hell in New York, she said hoarsely, as though clots of snow were lodged in her throat.

In this case “hoarsely” is important to the reader or they would be confused over a person choking on clots of snow.

She screamed out the words.
Over the top. If your character has to scream, then so bit it, but it’s unnecessary to add “out the words”. Again, your verbs in the dialogue should be strong enough to show the reader the character is screaming out the words.

They hissed their answer
Snakes hiss, people generally don’t. Write your dialogue to show their anger or do it with an action.

Every sentence of dialogue by a different character doesn’t need a tag line. If you have two people talking the occasional “said” is sufficient. But if you use an action after the line of dialogue then drop the “said”.

“Your perfume is very unusual.” He sniffed at her neck.
“Thank you. It’s my favorite.”
“It reminds me of something, but I can’t quite name it.”
He snapped his fingers. “Exactly.”

Nary a “he said” or “she said” added and you know who is talking.

A few more tag lines will be required when you have a group in conversation. It will also be necessary to add the character’s name.

“Your perfume is very unusual.” Max sniffed at her neck.
“Thank you. It’s my favorite.” Eva smiled at what she hoped was a compliment.
“It reminds me of something, but I can’t quite name it.”
“Rosemary?” asked Ron.
Max snapped his fingers. “Exactly.”


Every character in your story has a different voice, the way they say things. Be true to that character and write the dialogue as if they were really speaking.

Now that you have the idea, go though your manuscript in hard copy. Read the dialogue aloud or, better yet, have a friend read it. Then ask yourself these questions;

• Does it seem stilted, unnatural?
• Is that character’s dialogue true to them or do they all sound alike?
• Have you over dramatized the tag lines?
• Is the dialogue too long?
• Boring?
• Important enough to move your story along?

I’ll be back on Tuesday with Passive Writing; Show Don’t Tell.

Happy writing!

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4 Responses to “The Novel Chatter”

  1. For The Trees Says:

    This adds a completely new meaning to the old saying, “Tag, You’re It!” Now it looks like “He said, You’re It!”

    Or better, “Tag, You’re It!” as she slapped him silly.

    Excellent post, Sloane, excellent. I’m copying all these instructions out and putting together a Book About Books (working title) of all these posts, and I’ll be your ghost writer. Oughta make lotsa money.


  2. For The Trees Says:

    Speaking of which, my rewrite is taking me down a path of (almost) All Dialogue. I’m working toward it, anyway. Wish me luck, we’ll see how it comes out.

  3. Jenna Howard Says:

    And if anyone ever simpers I shall do some serious thumping. I’ve used hiss but only if the last word spoken has a ssss sound. Because if I read: ” ‘I plead the fifth,’ he hissed.” I’m going to think he said I plead the fiss and the character has a lisp.

    Although I once read a book where the heroine whelped. As in puppies. As opposed to yelp (which is also unsexy but at least I wasn’t confused about the historical suddenly becoming a weird paranormal).

  4. Sloane Says:

    You guys are nuts.

    The sad thing is, as you get all this info crammed down your throat, you’ll never again be able to read a book the same way.

    And, you’ll be amazed at how much shit has been published.